Ally Wilkes (she/they) grew up in a succession of isolated—possibly haunted—country houses and boarding schools. After studying law at Oxford, she went on to spend eleven years as a criminal barrister.
Ally now lives in Greenwich, London, with an anatomical human skeleton and far too many books about Polar exploration.
CMR: Well hello, and welcome to the next episode of Eldritch Girl, and I’ve got Ally Wilkes with me, author of All The White Spaces which is coming out soon. Ally, it’s lovely to have you, would you like to introduce yourself?
AW: Hi Mel, it’s so lovely to be on the podcast, and a brief introduction to me, I am a former criminal barrister turned horror writer. I’m coming to you from Greenwich London, which is where I live, I am an absolute nerd about polar and exploration horror, that’s my passion, and also in terms of sidelines I’m the book reviews editor for Horrified Magazine, the British horror magazine, and I’ve also had a few short stories here and there in various magazines and anthologies.
CMR: That’s fantastic, and you’re going to read an extract for us that was exclusively published with Horrified to begin with, so in the transcript that’s going to be linked to the Horrified Magazine extract instead of having it reproduced in the blog and I’m really excited because I started I started the ARC [Advanced Reader Copy] and I’m getting through it. It’s a chonky boi, I really like it.
AW: It’s my very large son, I’m afraid.
CMR: It’s really, really good so I’m very glad that you’re able to to read the extract for us. Whenever you’re ready, please do, and if you want to contextualize it and introduce it that’s also fine.
AW: Sure, so the extract is from the novel’s prologue. I know prologues come in and out of fashion, but I like them, so my novel does have a prologue. And the scene is Portsmouth in England in December 1918 the First World War has just finished. And our protagonist Jonathan Morgan has just received in us that his two older brothers have died from their battlefield injuries and wanting a moment alone with his thoughts he had upstairs to the boys’ bedroom.
Extract: ALL THE WHITE SPACES
CMR: I really love that opening. I love that prologue so much. I really loved the imagery as well that kind of really struck me when I read it first was the jewelled ice of the flows and the jagged blue ball of Antarctica, that was just gorgeous in this really stunning visual and I think we’ll get on to the kind of the emotional intensity of it as well, but I was just thinking what drew you to this particular era and why the Antarctic, rather than the Arctic, in this case? Because you are interested in the Arctic as well.
AW: I’m into all things polar and historical exploration, yeah. In this case, the era and the Antarctic went hand in hand I’ve always had a sort of lifelong fascination with the heroic age of Antarctica and the stories of, you know, Scott Shackleton and all those chaps.
And it’s sort of it came from a very, very early childhood interest in the continent, you know the stage at which you’re sort of lying on your stomach in your bedroom paging through atlases and what’s that, what’s there, and I found this place at the bottom of the globe that was called Wilkes Land, and that very much appealed to me with a child’s zeal for seeing my own name in print. And I was lucky enough to have a father who encouraged my reading very, very early on, and I sort of grew up loving the classic adventure stories, you know the sort of, Boys’ Own sort of heroes stories of their era, very much of that era, of course.
And then, as I grew older and older I started to appreciate, for example, the classic photography of the era like Frank Hurley’s photographs of the Endurance expedition have gone to a number of really good exhibitions based on that and also the photography and the iconography of those abandoned Antarctic huts, which are, of course, perfectly preserved and perfectly eerie.
So when I was thinking of what to write, I knew that it had to be around the heroic age of Antarctica to really pique my interest, but of course my novel is sort of almost post heroic age, because the heroic age is normally taken really to have ended with either the First World War, or with Shackleton’s death in 1922 on the Quest expedition, and so what I wanted to present was a sort of imagined tail-end to the heroic age, seen through the prism of the First World War, and there was this wonderful sort of like, little evocative nugget that sort of really sent me down this rabbit hole.
And it is the introduction by Fergus Fleming to my very dog-eared copy of Shackleton’s South and it’s just this one line, I think it says, “the concept of heroism died in the trenches.”
And it’s just the juxtaposition of this age of heroes, with, of course, the horrors of World War One and the sort of machinery of conflict that developed out of that. So I just wanted to smash the two of them together and create a sort of last hurrah for the heroic age or or maybe I don’t know a love letter or an Elegy for it either.
CMR: I love that. I think that’s very powerful, the melding of the horrors of the war is done in a very subtle way like it’s very explicit but … We don’t go to war, you don’t start us in the trenches you don’t you start us in a drawing room. And it’s very much the emotional effect and the impact of loss and that deep psychological scarring and those sorts of traumas and compounded bereavement and national grief as well and that sort of but very much focused on one particular character, one particular family, and then you get to meet Harry in person who’s the best friend of the brothers who comes back and I don’t want to spoil it too much, because it’s not out yet, but people will love him I hope.
AW: My tragic boy Harry.
CMR: Yes, and he’s so he’s, obviously, the one that has been through the war has lost all of his friends has lost so much of himself as well, I think that’s fair to say, you know, and he’s going on this expedition to Antarctica with Jonathan.
I was interested in what drew you to use a sort of grief, bereavement, as the catalyst for you know the propelling action in the story, and I wondered if you wanted to unpack that kind of without spoilers, but like, the impact of that sort of collective trauma of the War on the men on the expedition, and how that helped you to develop their characters potentially or how that helped you to develop the psychology of what’s going on, and as we kind of get further into the horror of things on the ice.
AW: Well, grief and bereavement as a catalyst really sort of came organically out of the fact that I wanted to do a post First World War Antarctic setting. And exactly the same sort of people that would have been at the Front would be the people on the expedition, so they would have obviously be an instant overlap. And I thought it was very interesting that everyone on that expedition would have been profoundly touched by the War in one way or another, whether they went or not, because you have a few people on the expedition: one who was a conscientious objector, one who was turned down for military service and volunteered elsewhere, and they’ve all been touched very profoundly by the War and it’s sort of it’s made its mark in their psyches. So it was very… it was natural for me to use it as an inciting incident for Jonathan that the thing that kicks it all off because it’s clear that when the story starts, Jonathan is sort of his… he’s very much stuck in a rut. He’s very much trapped by his circumstance, partly because of the gender he was assigned at birth, because Jonathan is a trans man, he was assigned female at birth. Partly because of societal expectations related to that gender, partly because of expectations related to that class. He’s clearly from upper class background, his family are very obsessed with propriety and so on, so he’s… he starts the story very much almost a fly in amber, as it were, and something has to come through and crush him out of it and incite him to make all the choices he does, and some of them are, you know quite wacky choices, like let’s run away to Antarctica! Yes, that will be brilliant! Spoiler alert, it is not brilliant.
So something had to happen and it had to be from, to my mind, the death of his brothers, no other thing would suit. It couldn’t be people who are further from here, more or less bound up in his life because it needed to have that sort of sucker punch really at the early stage of the book.
And also because Jonathan’s entire deal at the start at the story is about him idolizing his brothers and hero-worshiping them, he’s built them up into this almost this construct in his mind of what masculinity and heroism might mean. And as the story unfolds, he sort of comes to unpick that and understand, maybe, their nuances in a bit more depth and by doing so, understand what he thinks being a man is all about, the sort of man he wants to be, so he couldn’t very well do that while they were still in the picture… so I’m afraid, Rufus and Francis, you’re dead to begin with, let’s move on.
CMR: Yes, because you’ve got that kind of exploration of self and that reconstructive power then, haven’t you, the demolition of things that have gone before. And I think that line is really important, like at the start, and I picked it up at the time I read it for the first time, and then you read it out loud and it it kind of hit me again, which was “a man is entitled to leave his past behind”, or something that? And that’s very much like, here’s the main theme!
AW: Oh wow, you know, I’m very glad you you picked up on that. I have a bit of a foible when I approach either a prologue or a first chapter and I like to put as much of the book as I can in by hook or by crook, and I hope it doesn’t come across as overloaded as as a result, but I do try and sneak in the themes, sneak in some of the major incidents, sneak in all the characters you’re going to need to know about really early on.
And that line from Liam Clark, who is Randall the superheroes second in command and often overlooked is really sort of key to the thesis of the book a man is entitled if he wishes, if he wishes, he doesn’t have to leave the past behind. And Jonathan has to make that decision to build himself in his own image, not in the image of his brothers and not in the image of the past.
CMR: Yes, and if he wishes, is very much about your own agency in that as well, and like being able to have that agency and yeah I was like oh! Excellent. Yeah and I’m thinking about the white space of the title, and the white space of Antarctica is that kind of metaphor that ability, that place of exploration, that enables you to do that, because you can be anybody on a completely blank sheet of continent where it is actually just you in the ice and there isn’t any … well, or is there… it’s you and particularly vicious penguins or terrifying horrors.
AW: I mean the “all the white spaces” thing was sort of a bit of serendipity on my part. So, the book, when I was originally working on it, was called A Great White Darkness and I liked that as a title. It felt very dramatic, but it didn’t feel quite right emotionally for the book. It didn’t feel like it spoke to what the book might be about, and it’s also very close to the title of a fantastic YA novel called The White Darkness, which is in Antarctica.
So I didn’t really want to use that, but my novel writing group helped me sort of pick that title from one Randall’s very early rants to Jonathan. And it just sounded just so perfectly right for its time period, all the white spaces, and, at the time I was actually writing a diary format, so the idea was that Jonathan was sort of constructing his identity and story in the margins of this traditional heroic tale, and that corresponds to the white spaces of Antarctica.
And even though I ditched the diary format, I hope it still works, because the gulf between what said, officially, so to speak about someone and who they really are is a major preoccupation for me in the novel.
CMR: Yes, I think I think it does work. I really enjoyed going on that journey and I’m wondering… So why did you choose Jonathan’s character, what kind of made him jump out at you as, this is my main character, and how much research did you need to do and what kind of research did you do to try and bring him to life?
AW: Well, the fact that Jonathan was a trans character, a trans man fell into place really early on, for me. And because I wanted to tell a story about a sort of very masculine environment, the trenches and Antarctica, and give it a little bit of a little bit of an elbow a maybe a little bit of a critique, and so I knew I needed an outsider voice.
But someone who yearned to be on the inside and felt it was really their rightful place so that, for me, sort of excluded the traditional girl dressed up as a boy adventure narrative which I really loved growing up, but I felt I wanted to do something a little bit different and once I had that in mind, I felt Jonathan’s identity as a trans man brought out so much about his character and his struggles and also the way he relates to the other men on the expedition.
So to me it was really key that he was the character, I chose for my window into this world because he could critique it and he could speak to it was not being you know boots on fully immersed into it just yet and in terms of the research, I mean it was quite difficult in a way, because around that time it’s 1920s and ‘trans’ wouldn’t be a word in general currency, so to speak, and Jonathan certainly with his upbringing wouldn’t really be able to describe himself as such.
I started off before I wrote the book looking at other queer identities around that time period, including gay men and books about trans men or those sorts of narratives around the turn of the century, and how those people articulated their feelings about their identities and who they were, and what I found actually was that they were quite matter of fact about who they were and their desires and their identities and their wants, and people around them could also even in the stranger settings sometimes be quite accepting and quite matter of fact, as well, they wouldn’t have the modern terminology to display.
Perhaps a very rounded understanding, but sometimes people will surprise you, in terms of what they will accept tolerate and generally just get on with, and so I wanted to bring that sort of down to earth matter-of-fact-ness to Jonathan’s story and I worked at a very early stage before submitting to agents, with three separate sensitivity readers for trans men and trans masculine identities, to try and get that sort of hopefully authentic and real-seeming portrayal whilst very much bearing in mind that it’s a book about a trans man, rather than a book about being trans per se – that’s not really Jonathan’s journey.
CMR: Yeah absolutely and I think that’s like an important distinction, but I think it yeah I I enjoy Jonathan’s voice a lot and I can see how – I know that you’ve said you started off in sort of diary story format, I can kind of see how it would have developed from that sort, I can see how it lends itself to to that, but I really love the narrative voice and the flow of the narrative.
And I think it really works yeah and I can’t wait for other people to read it, so I can say more.
AW: I think starting it as a diary did really helped me because I wrote a lot of it as a diary like the entire first draft, diary only, 80,000 words. And it really helped me sort of inhabit jonathan’s voice and make all those sort of quite niggling decisions about whether he would use this word or the other word, whether he has a sort of floated fancy language or whether he’s resolutely down to earth and God love him I love Jonathan but it’s very funny when he walks out of, say, a terrifying location, he comes out into the polar night and it’s often you as a writer want to really sort of paint the picture, but inside I can hear Jonathan going … “It was dark, and cold.”
CMR: It’s like that almost anticlimactic like – [trills, increasing pitch] splat.
AW: Exactly. What he would say, and the frames of reference, he would have, I think, and that that is much easier to do I think if you start off writing it as a diary and then transpose it, as I have into a sort of, first person more traditional narrative.
CMR: Yes, yeah yeah. I’m thinking about other kinds of research that you obviously have done that you’ve been immersed in since you were a child, because the Antarctic, as it yeah [on the map] behind you… Is, I mean, some seriously weird stuff has happened in the Antarctic anyway and there’s lots of really interesting stories of biological things and just very bizarre kind of narratives, and lights and illusions and perceptions and that kind of stuff, and I was wondering if, you know, how much of that did you develop and put into the story, and what did you leave out that you kind of wanted to put in which I imagine is like everything.
AW: In terms of what I put in, All the White Spaces at its core, I think, is largely inspired by the narratives of Shackleton. In particular, his insurance expedition it’s around the same time period insurance was at the start of the First World War, it involves a disaster in the Weddell Sea, and there’s a young stowaway in search for adventure, as there was on Shackleton ship; Perce Blackborow, the Welsh galley assistant, and so I really sort of took that as a starting point, with the research and tried to be very focused on the heroic age and that time in Antarctica and that region of Antarctica and not sort of go off on a flight to fancy and all down a wiki hole to do with anything else.
I took Shackleton as a starting point, obviously, but I’m writing a world in which he didn’t exist because I think that if you’re writing a historical novel where there’s one preeminent person around at a certain time in a certain place, you’re going to have to grapple with… either you put them in the novel and deal with that, as you will, or if you… if you want to have a second explorer who’s a little bit like that, they might have to meet or have some sort of history, and I didn’t want that, so I tossed all of that out to create Australis Randall and to give myself a little bit more leeway and then really sort of focused in on fleshing out everything that he might have gone through in his life. But there’s a lot of stuff about Antarctica that I very much enjoyed and had to largely leave out.
Really interesting accounts of killer whales hunting the men from the expeditions on the ice floes, ganging up on them and trying to kill them and their dogs and their ponies, and so the descriptions given are just terrifying, absolute — on Scott’s expedition talks about their yellow pig-like eyes, and it’s it’s all very, very frightening and I came to the conclusion I couldn’t use any of that, but you do see references to killer whales here and there in the novel because I just couldn’t stop myself.
And, and then my other great exploration loves are scurvy, and which I regretfully concluded I couldn’t shoehorn into the novel it’s already a very chunky boy indeed, and survival cannibalism which obviously looms very large over Arctic exploration.
Not so much Antarctic so again, I had to put that to one side and be very deliberate that we weren’t going to have, as it were, a dwindling stores plotline or scurvy sores plotline.
CMR: Why, why is it that there’s more survival cannibalism in Arctic rather than Antarctic what’s what’s that about?
AW: I don’t know it might be due to time periods and equipment. And in Antarctica exploration, it tends to be at its pioneer age slightly later. Because when you think of survival cannibalism in the Arctic, you’re really sort of hitting a peak around … with the Franklin expedition, with Greeley and stuff like that, so I don’t know whether it’s something to do with the time period or whether there’s just something in the water up there.
It seems to be a very bad place for survival cannibalism, but we don’t really have that sort of the same degree of stories in the Antarctic. I’m not even going to comment on the Mawson controversy, because I’m not qualified, but it’s an interesting one.
CMR: Oh, yeah. Yeah, people can Google that one. Come to your own conclusions.
AW: In terms of what else I would have loved to have done a nod to in the book, there’s a lot of very cosmic shit happening in Antarctica you’ve got things like the Blood Falls, which is just so heavy metal, which is like a waterfall that runs red like blood. You’ve got things like the Wilkes Land gravity anomaly, which is a place where satellites get pulled towards the earth because there’s a massive deposit of something like meteorite and they think under the snow and ice and so you’ve got all this sort of strange UFO conspiracy theory stuff going on with Antarctica and that’s that’s all fascinating and I would have liked to have included more nods to it in the book.
But, again, I was trying very deliberately to evoke the feel of a certain place and time that certain heroic era, I didn’t think I could fit it all in, so look out for 1940s/50s cosmic Nazi Antarctica book.
CMR: I was gonna say yeah. I am actually looking forward to that now. Like tiny bit of survival cannibalism tiny, tiny bit??
AW: A morsel!
CMR: Yeah that’s fantastic, I’m really excited!
And when is it [All The White Spaces] coming out do you like to do the big … it’s so very soon, this month [January].
AW: Yes, that’s right all the white spaces is out in the UK on the 25th so a week today as we’re recording this and in the US I’m afraid US readers have to wait a little bit longer it’s the 29th of March so that’s when it will be on sale.
CMR: So 25th of January UK and then March for US. I think this episode will probably go out in February. So, right in the middle of the two, so actually by the time this podcast airs. But I still won’t be able to spoil it for US readers because they have to wait a whole other month.
CMR: Is there anything else that you’ve got coming up, or any author events that you’d like to mention or anything with Horrified Magazine that you want to bring up while you’re here?
AW: In terms of Horrified Magazine, we are still going strong, that was launched is you probably remember during some pretty wild times for us with covert and various other things, but still going strong. I’m still book reviews editor over there, we specialize in British horror, we really want to champion British horror, particularly indie horror, and sort of shine a spotlight on it, because one thing about the horror scene is it can come across as really quite US-centric so trying to trying to diversify that as much as we’re able to and I’m also in the starting line-up of Cloister Fox, which is a brand new British weird and speculative fiction zine, the first edition is going to be out in April.
It’s going to be bi-annually after that at time of recording. Our Indiegogo campaign is still going to help us get off the ground.
But it’s going to have some seriously weird fiction from speculative and slipstream writers which is going to be in the first issue, so I’m working on that at the moment.
And finally, as you can probably imagine, there is a book to in the works, and it’s no surprise it’s more historical horror set in cold places. This time the Arctic and this one really takes that scurvy and survival cannibalism just runs with it. It’s a book all about scurvy and survival cannibalism.
AW: I know, right?
CMR: VERY excited.
AW: Yeah the second I realized I couldn’t fit it in All the White Spaces, I was like, hang on buckle up, we’re going in.
CMR: Good. Good choices. Except by, I’m assuming, most of the characters in the book.
AW: Terrible choices. Terrible choices. None of most of my characters could make a good choice if it hit them in the face.
CMR: Excellent. Excellent. Well it’s been absolutely lovely to talk to you. I think that’s all we’ve got time for, but I yeah I really enjoyed listening to so much Antarctic goodness. Thank you so much for that.
AW: Thank you so much for having me on it’s been an absolute pleasure.